Ghani’s frustration

10 Jun 2015


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

AFGHAN president Ashraf Ghani is a worried man and the reasons for his woes are plentiful. He has put his political future at stake by charting a friendly course with Pakistan in a desperate hope to bring peace to his war-torn country. He expected Islamabad’s cooperation in curtailing the Taliban’s military capability and forcing the insurgents to come to the negotiating table.

Instead, the Taliban offensive this summer has been the fiercest and much more widespread than ever before. Kabul has almost daily seen increasingly audacious attacks in its high-security zones. The most worrisome aspect, however, is the spread of the insurgency even in the northern provinces. That has given more ammunition to critics of Ghani’s reconciliation policy.

Besieged from all sides, the Afghan president seems to be losing his patience. His frustration is very evident by his recent communication to the Pakistani civil and military leaders calling for clamping down on Taliban commanders residing in Pakistan. He warned of reversing his policy of outreach if Pakistan failed to deliver.

President Ghani has also been airing his dismay to some of his old Pakistani friends and political leaders who recently met him over what he describes as Islamabad’s failure to deliver on its promises. There is nothing tangible that Islamabad has to show for its cooperation on any issue, he reportedly told the Pakistani visitors.

His tenor is certainly getting increasingly bitter as the Taliban offensive has turned more lethal, resulting in heavy civilian and military casualties. He feels Pakistani military actions in North Waziristan and other tribal areas have pushed the insurgents to the Afghan side while not doing enough to curtail their activities in Pakistan. Another serious concern of Kabul is that thousands of Pakistani militants have been involved in the latest offensive.

The Afghan president has warned of reversing his policy of outreach if Pakistan failed to deliver.

The Afghan president wants Pakistan to particularly go after the Haqqani Network, that Afghan security officials believe has been spared in the ongoing operation in North Waziristan and encouraged to establish sanctuaries across the border. The Haqqani Network is believed to be responsible for some of the most lethal terrorist attacks in the Afghan capital. The president even suspects elements within the ISI of aiding the fighting in the western Afghan province of Kunduz — a message sent out before his visit to Delhi.

Most of this suspicion may be baseless; nevertheless, it manifests the eroding faith in Pakistan’s response to the challenge. One must admit that President Ghani has sincerely tried to leave the past behind and open a new chapter of cooperation between the two countries ignoring the strong opposition within their own ranks. And we must try to remove those apprehensions.

What has added to Mr Ghani’s frustration is that there is no sign yet that the Taliban are willing to start peace talks, though some informal contacts have been made between the two sides in the Chinese city of Urumqi and more recently in Norway. He hoped Pakistan could help in the peace process.

Ghani may have an exaggerated expectation of Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban leadership. But Pakistan may have also unwittingly encouraged the perception that the Taliban could be persuaded to engage with the Kabul administration. It is extremely difficult now for Islamabad to convince the Kabul administration about our limited clout over the Afghan insurgents. In fact, at this stage there may not be any takers of our inability to curtail the Taliban’s military power or force the insurgents to engage in peace talks with the Kabul administration.

The latest series of terrorist attacks in Kabul and the Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan is being used by former president Hamid Karzai and others to step up pressure on Ghani to reverse his Pakistan policy. The recent agreement between ISI and the Afghan intelligence agency NDS has provoked criticism within his own government including by Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive.

Apparently the major reason behind Ghani making his latest public communication to Pakistani leaders is to quell the opposition. It is also a clear message to Pakistani leaders that they have to move fast on their commitments. During last month’s visit to Kabul, the Pakistani civil and military leadership had once again assured President Ghani of taking joint action against the Afghan insurgents and agreed to intelligence-sharing. For the first time, Pakistan openly and very strongly criticised the Taliban offensive calling it acts of terrorism.

But Kabul feels that such statements alone are not enough to assuage sentiments at home. Each terrorist attack on Kabul weakens Ghani’s control. One can understand his growing frustration. But the real issue is what Pakistan can do to help him and prevent the situation from reverting to the hostile relationship of old.

Surely, with the drawing down of the US-led coalition forces, the intensity of the Taliban offensive was predictable. Insurgents have also benefited hugely from the internal political divide and uncertainty in Afghanistan. It was also apparent that Afghan national forces were still not fully equipped and trained to deal with the widespread and organised insurgency without the active support of the US and Nato forces.

Islamabad’s capacity to rein in the Afghan Taliban who had long thrived under our hospitality is questionable. Over the years, they had strengthened their ties with Pakistani militants who are now challenging the Pakistani state. Nevertheless Pakistan can still take some measures to curtail the Afghan Taliban activities and use whatever leverage it has left to force them to come to the negotiating table. Not to forget that most of the Afghan Taliban leaders and their families still appear to be residing here enjoying our hospitality.

We must pay heed to Mr Ghani’s warning rather than reacting to it adversely. The future stability of the two countries is deeply intertwined and any reversal in the new-found relationship would have a huge strategic cost for us. A return to hostility could be disastrous for the entire region.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2015

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